Julian Assange released: What now?
The plea deal reached between the WikiLeaks founder and the US government sets a worrying precedent
02 Jul 24

Index on Censorship has had a close relationship with Julian Assange since he picked up our new media award in 2008 for his work with Wikileaks due to our shared concern for freedom of expression. We were therefore pleased to hear the news that he was finally able to be reunited with his family in Australia after five years in London’s Belmarsh Prison and seven years in hiding at the Ecuadorian embassy (pictured above). At a court in the US Pacific island territory of Saipan, Assange pleaded guilty to a single charge of violating the US Espionage Act. He admitted conspiring to obtain and disclose classified defence documents. Time will tell what chilling effect the deal struck between Assange’s lawyers and the American government will have on journalists attempting to expose future wrongdoing by the US military and intelligence services.

The British courts may have played a decisive role by insisting that Assange’s free expression rights be taken into account during the extradition hearings. But there was a sense that by the end of the proceedings that both sides were exhausted. As Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona said as she announced the agreement: “I hope there will be some peace restored.” For free expression organisations such as Index, the dominant emotion is relief that this saga is finally over.

The unstinting support of our colleagues at Reporters Without Borders has been instrumental in keeping the case in the public eye. But the wider Free Assange campaign has, at times, been a huge distraction. The campaign allowed a whole range of wider questions to arise which were nothing to do with free speech. Was the Wikileaks founder a journalist, an activist or a publisher, for example?

Julian Assange has established his place in history as one of the most significant figures in 21st century journalism. The sheer scale of the leak of US diplomatic cables he helped facilitate forced rival journalists to work together. But it also made governments determined to stop it happening again. New measures in the UK’s new National Security Act, for example, were specifically designed to “modernise” official secrecy legislation in response to Wikileaks-style data dumps. At the same time, authoritarian regimes could always hold up Assange as an example of western hypocrisy when challenged on their human rights records.

The reality is that although the Assange campaign has redefined the way the free speech world works, it has also sucked lots of the air out of it. Julian and Stella Assange have asked for the space to build a life for themselves and their children in Australia. This is their victory. But let us hope that for those of us who care about free expression, the focus can now switch fully to other egregious cases around the world.

In a terrible coincidence, the release of Assange coincided with the beginning of the espionage trial of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in March 2023 shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It also coincided with the case of Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai reaching the highest court of appeal. Lai stands accused of joining an illegal protest in 2019. Next month his trial resumes under separate national security charges.

While we’ve poured energy into campaigning for the release of Assange, there has been a race to the bottom elsewhere in the world. Reporters accused of subversion are held without trial in China’s “black jails”, while hundreds of Uyghur journalists have been imprisoned in the re-education camps of Xinjiang. Russia’s independent media has been eviscerated and President Lukashenka has rounded up any opposition voices in Belarus. The use of anti-terrorist or national security legislation to control journalists has become commonplace in Turkey, in Egypt, in India and across the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

It would be good to think that the energy of the Free Assange campaign could now be harnessed in support of Gershkovich, Lai and the many brave journalists around the world held as spies or subversives whose names we don’t even know.

By Martin Bright

Martin Bright has over 30 years of experience as a journalist, working for the Observer, the Guardian and the New Statesman among others. He has worked on several high-profile freedom of expression cases often involving government secrecy. He broke the story of Iraq War whistleblower Katharine Gun, which was made into the movie Official Secrets (2019) starring Keira Knightley.